Will Obama Say Anything Interesting About Foreign Policy Tonight?


Credit: White House Photographer Lawrence Jackson/wikimedia

Later today, President Obama will give his latest State of Union address, which progressives are hoping will include plenty of liberal rhetoric and promises.

Domestically, there are plenty of policy areas Obama will undoubtedly mention. The Obamacare website rollout was a disaster, although as Politico notes, "The speech is coming at the right time for the White House. HealthCare.gov is largely fixed for consumers."

In the 2013 State of the Union address Obama said that "right now, leaders from the business, labor, law enforcement, faith communities—they all agree that the time has come to pass comprehensive immigration reform." Given the current state of immigration reform legislation, it shouldn't be surprising if Obama revisits the issue.

This morning, it was reported that Obama is expected to announce a raise in the minimum wage for new federal contract workers.

While there are plenty of domestic issues for Obama to mention this evening, foreign policy will also be addressed. Since the last State of the Union address the NSA revelations have done damage to America's relationships abroad, Al Qaeda-linked groups have been playing an increasingly significant role in Iraq as well as Syria, a nuclear deal with Iran has been agreed to, there was a coup in Egypt, the crisis in the Central African Republic worsened, and protests erupted in Ukraine.

Some of these are new developments, but others, such as the situations in Syria, Iran, and post-Mubarak Egypt have been mentioned in previous State of the Union addresses.


In his 2012 State of the Union, Obama mentioned Syria once:

As the tide of war recedes, a wave of change has washed across the Middle East and North Africa, from Tunis to Cairo; from Sana'a to Tripoli.  A year ago, Qaddafi was one of the world's longest-serving dictators -– a murderer with American blood on his hands. Today, he is gone. And in Syria, I have no doubt that the Assad regime will soon discover that the forces of change cannot be reversed, and that human dignity cannot be denied.  

The Assad regime has not discovered that "the forces of change cannot be reversed," and infighting among opposition forces has only helped the regime.

In the 2013 State of the Union, the situation in Syria got some more attention than it did in the 2012 State of the Union:

We'll keep the pressure on a Syrian regime that has murdered its own people, and support opposition leaders that respect the rights of every Syrian.  And we will stand steadfast with Israel in pursuit of security and a lasting peace.  

Since making the above statement Obama's "red line" was crossed, providing what some might have hoped would present the president with an opportunity to "keep the pressure on a Syrian regime that has murdered its own people." However, rather than the strikes on Syria some were hoping for, the U.S. struck a deal with Russia relating to the Assad regime's chemical weapons.

Unsurprisingly, the ongoing Syria peace talks look unlikely to produce any sort of peace deal that the Assad regime, the represented opposition, and international representatives will agree to, let alone be able to enforce. Given the situation in Syria and the state of the peace talks, don't expect more than condemnation of the Assad regime from Obama tonight.


In the 2012 State of the Union Obama said the following about Iran:

And we will safeguard America's own security against those who threaten our citizens, our friends, and our interests.  Look at Iran.  Through the power of our diplomacy, a world that was once divided about how to deal with Iran's nuclear program now stands as one.  The regime is more isolated than ever before; its leaders are faced with crippling sanctions, and as long as they shirk their responsibilities, this pressure will not relent.

Let there be no doubt:  America is determined to prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon, and I will take no options off the table to achieve that goal.  (Applause.)

But a peaceful resolution of this issue is still possible, and far better, and if Iran changes course and meets its obligations, it can rejoin the community of nations.

In the 2013, the same year that the U.S. and other members of the so-called P5+1 group agreed to a deal relating to Iran's nuclear program, Iran was only briefly mentioned in the State of the Union:

Of course, our challenges don't end with al Qaeda.  America will continue to lead the effort to prevent the spread of the world's most dangerous weapons.  The regime in North Korea must know they will only achieve security and prosperity by meeting their international obligations.  Provocations of the sort we saw last night will only further isolate them, as we stand by our allies, strengthen our own missile defense and lead the world in taking firm action in response to these threats.  

Likewise, the leaders of Iran must recognize that now is the time for a diplomatic solution, because a coalition stands united in demanding that they meet their obligations, and we will do what is necessary to prevent them from getting a nuclear weapon. (Applause.)

Although the deal with Iran is a far from perfect step in the right direction, Obama may urge legislators not to impose any further sanctions, which could jeopardize the deal agreed to last November. Sens. Carl Levin (D-Mich.) and Angus King Jr. (I- Maine) wrote in The New York Times yesterday that,

For us to impose additional sanctions under these circumstances (or threaten to impose additional sanctions) could be an "I told you so" moment for these hard-liners, providing the very excuse they're looking for to kill the negotiations and, with them, what is probably the best chance we have of resolving this incredibly dangerous situation without resorting to military action.


Since Obama's 2013 State of the Union there has been a coup in Egypt, which was followed by a brutal crackdown on supporters of ousted President Morsi. Recently, Egyptians overwhelmingly approved a constitution in a referendum that the Muslim Brotherhood urged its members to boycott.

In the 2012 State of the Union Egypt was not mentioned, and in the 2013 State of the Union the country was mentioned once:

In defense of freedom, we'll remain the anchor of strong alliances from the Americas to Africa; from Europe to Asia.  In the Middle East, we will stand with citizens as they demand their universal rights, and support stable transitions to democracy.  (Applause.)  

We know the process will be messy, and we cannot presume to dictate the course of change in countries like Egypt, but we can—and will—insist on respect for the fundamental rights of all people.

It shouldn't be surprising if Obama speaks out again for a transition to democracy in Egypt, but don't expect any changes to foreign aid or diplomatic status to be announced.

Al Qaeda

In last year's State of the Union address Obama mentioned Al Qaeda, and described the organization that carried out the 9/11 attacks as "a shadow of its former self." However, since that speech the Al Qaeda-linked group the Islamic State in the Iraq and the Levant seized the Iraqi cities of Fallujah and Ramadi and have been fighting opposition groups in Syria. Obama may want to elaborate on the threat of Islamic terrorism given the situation in Syria and Iraq, his comments last year about Al Qaeda didn't specifically mention Iraq or Syria:

It's true, different al Qaeda affiliates and extremist groups have emerged—from the Arabian Peninsula to Africa.  The threat these groups pose is evolving.  But to meet this threat, we don't need to send tens of thousands of our sons and daughters abroad or occupy other nations.  Instead, we'll need to help countries like Yemen, and Libya, and Somalia provide for their own security, and help allies who take the fight to terrorists, as we have in Mali.  And where necessary, through a range of capabilities, we will continue to take direct action against those terrorists who pose the gravest threat to Americans (Applause.)  


It will be surprising if Snowden's NSA revelations do not get mentioned this evening, especially considering what Obama said in the 2013 State of the Union.

Last year, Obama announced that talks between the U.S. and the European Union would begin on "a comprehensive Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership."

However, reporting on the NSA's snooping on European citizens and officials understandably put a dent in U.S.-European relations and trade negotiations. Obama has sought to reassure allied leaders that he will not spy on them, and may use tonight's State of the Union as an opportunity to demonstrate his commitment to getting the terms of a trade deal with the E.U. finalized.

I and others from Reason will be livetweeting the State of the Union tonight, click here to follow along.